“Does the world need another microbiology book?”
Such were the encouraging words of an Auckland Backpacker hostel manager when I told him what I was up to. I didn’t quite know how to answer that on the spot.
But I do now. and I think it’s a good question which deserves a good answer. The answer is: YES, the world does need another microbiology book. It also needs more good books on other subjects in science. Because understanding the world we live in is a good thing, and interesting too, given half a chance.
But there’s a problem. A PR problem. This article from The Onion says it all. It’s satirical, but it’s good, right-on-target satire. This is what science looks like from the outside, and it’s a damn shame, I say. I mean, of course doing science is hard. So is fixing cars or teaching a class or welding or designing clothes or anything else people for a living. The easy stuff nobody pays you to do, or has already been done.
But understanding science shouldn’t be that hard; and yet many people shrink from science as if it were something toxic, or an arcane lore known only to a separate breed of people who speak a strange language. Well, maybe it is, a bit, but it really shouldn’t be;
A few years ago I was listening to a song by Meir Ariel, a (late lamented) truly awesome Israeli singer-songwriter (and oh so much else), and i thought “this music that I love so much, it’s such a shame that only people who speak Hebrew can truly appreciate and enjoy it; the rest of the world is missing out.” and of course, I’m missing innumerable gems just because I don’t speak Croatian or Swahili, or simply because I failed to pick up the right book or turn on the radio at the right time. Such is life etc. etc.
BUT: with science that’s the same case, and there’s a lot less of an excuse. I can’t capture and translate fully the unutterable beauty and gentleness of “Atoor Mitzchech Zahav Shachor” (“your forehead wreathed in black gold…” no, it just doesn’t sound the same, sorry), but it doesn’t require a lifetime of study to appreciate the beauty and splendour of nature as a scientist sees it – oh, yes we do. Why do you thik scientists work such long hours for such meagre pay? – it just requires some effort fom the explainer and the listener. Also perhaps, and I say this with caution, just a bit less concentration on maths and methods in science classes, and a bit more on the ideas, the relevance and the worldview.